Alexander Cohen interview, 21 February 2016, 23 February 2016 and 25 February 2016

Dublin Core


Alexander Cohen interview, 21 February 2016, 23 February 2016 and 25 February 2016




Consultant Physician Alexander Kevin Cohen was born in Perth on 22 September 1926. He studied medicine at Adelaide University graduating in 1950. He spent his postgraduate years in London where he met his future wife. He was appointed to the Clinical Staff of the Royal Perth Hospital in 1957 and served as a physician until his retirement in 1992. His main interest has been in endocrine disorders and he has had a number of papers published in this field. He has been a member of the UWA Senate for many years. He was also chairman of the Finance Committee. In recognition of his contribution to the Faculty of Medicine, he was appointed Clinical Professor of Medicine. Since his retirement from the Royal Perth Hospital, he has been Director of Postgraduate Education at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and President of the Royal Australian College of Physicians.


Cohen, Alexander


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Alex Cohen


Mount Pleasant, WA


Interview 1: 54 minutes, 33 seconds
Interview 2: 52 minutes, 18 seconds
Interview 3: 19 minutes, 11 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 6 minutes, 2 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1
00:00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00:01:14 Alex Cohen (“AKC”) outlines his plan for the interview sessions and will discuss the Senate years in the first interview. AKC was involved as a medical representative on behalf of the university at various meetings. Around about 1981, it was suggested that he stand for the UWA Senate. He had studied medicine in Adelaide as the medical school at UWA was not founded until 1967 but was admitted ad eundem gratum by Professor Mervyn Austin in about 1976 to the Convocation of UWA Graduates. At the time of the Senate election in 1981 he was in competition with John Gillett, the son of a former Chancellor at UWA. AKC was assisted in his lobbying by Eric Silbert and was elected by 1 vote! AKC served on the Senate for the next 8 years. He learnt a great deal and felt that he was gradually groomed to become the Chancellor.
00:05:47 AKC was Chair of the University Extension Board (1984-1987) then ran by Maureen Smith . The Extension office was near the Lawrence Wilson Gallery. They planned events and advertised on the university radio station. He was Chairman of the Finance Committee (1991-1998) even though he had no accountancy skills. From 1986 to 1998, he served as Chair of the Finance Committee on the Festival of Perth Board of Management. The Director at the time was David Blenkinsop. He had a more relaxed style than his predecessor John Birman. Professor Fred Alexander the founding Professor of History at UWA was on the Festival Finance Committee and interfered in almost every decision that was made! The Festival became a big success even though it went through some tough times financially. AKC was an invitee to most of the Festival events. His late first wife Adele was a professional actor, was connected with the University Dramatic Society and knew Joan Pope, Neville Teede and John Baden-Powell. In 1998, Adele died and AKC stopped working as a physician for a little while.
00:11:48 During his time on the Senate, AKC encountered several Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors. Sir Lawrence Jackson was calm, knowledgeable, authoritative and fair. He met AKC for a cup of tea a week after his election to the Senate and explained how it worked. Robert Street was a very intelligent physicist but perhaps too kindly. Don Aitken , who succeeded the Hon Sir Lawrence Jackson as Chancellor, was an engineer. He liked order and precision. The next Chancellor, the Hon Mr Justice Kennedy was a High Court Judge. He was kind, whimsical and quietly spoken. He had wanted to retire earlier but stayed on in order to give AKC the opportunity to stand as Chancellor.
00:16:01 The consequence of AKC’s election as Chancellor can be discussed during the next interview but there was a great deal of lobbying. UWA had never before had a doctor as Chancellor. Ken Michael had been brought onto the Senate to serve as Chancellor and was a strong contender for the position. AKC put it to Ken Michael that perhaps he should wait until AKC had served his time as Chancellor which he willingly did. This did not appease Ken Michael’s supporters and there was much political lobbying in the University Club dining room! AKC was elected Chancellor in 1998.
00:18:13 In 1985, Robert Street was replaced as Vice-Chancellor by Bob Smith . Smith was charming and very socially adept. This was a time of great change in universities with the Dawkins Review in 1987. Universities such as UWA were now in competition with other educational establishments. There was discussion in the Senate that Murdoch should have been the second campus of UWA. Murdoch has had many challenges but has now established itself as the premier veterinary school in WA. A more serious threat was the establishment of Curtin University (formerly T.A.F.E.) under Don Watts. Curtin has a more practical approach to academe and is more community orientated. At first Edith Cowan was not well regarded as it has been a teachers’ college but has since found its niche in the market. Notre Dame is also a threat. The Vice-Chancellor of Notre Dame was once a member of the UWA Senate.
00:25:56 The Dawkins Review and the reintroduction of Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in 1987 has challenged established universities such as UWA. The Vice-Chancellors during this time were Robert Street and at the time of Dawkins, Bob Smith (who, unbeknown to UWA, was on Dawkins’ Committee). He was seconded to implement the Dawkins’ recommendations and was replaced by Fay Gale . She was from Adelaide and her background was history and arts. Her passion for female equality caused ripples of anxiety at UWA. Fay did a lot of travelling and in her absence, Alan Robson held the fort. He had hoped to be made Vice-Chancellor following the departure of R H T Smith in 1989. Alan Robson was from the School of Agriculture which was one of the founding disciplines at UWA. AKC has the greatest respect for Alan Robson.
00:30:36 At one time, there was a concern that there was an over representation of Catholic councillors on the UWA campus. It was decided that a deputation that included AKC, Fay Gale and the registrar, Malcolm Orr, should meet with Archbishop Hickey. Fay Gale arrived late – dressed from head to toe in purple and succeeded in upstaging the Archbishop! When Fay Gale retired due to ill health, Derek Schreuder was recruited. He came into office at about the time that AKC was elected as Chancellor. AKC is of the opinion that he was not the right appointment for that time. It was a time when self-examination and deep esprit de corps was required. The portraits of the UWA Chancellors hang in the Senate Room while those of the Vice-Chancellor hang in the Foyer of the Chancellery. All the portraits are the same size apart from Schreuder’s which is twice as big as the rest!
00:33:49 AKC recalls other members of the Senate. Although it changed over the 8 years, there was a time when David Malcolm and the Dean of Arts, Felicity Haynes sat opposite him. They were both statuesque – like a Greek God and Goddess! The Chair of the Professorial Council represented the academics and Terry Quickenden from Chemistry represented the staff. Lawyer, Paul Nichols reminded AKC of Rumpole of the Bailey.
00:36:48 Dr Sue Baker was the Chair of Convocation. The role of Convocation is extremely important but was ineffective at one time. Sue Baker was a strong advocate for Convocation but unfortunately died in 2014. The current Warden, Adjunct Professor Warren Kerr AM is also trying to reinvigorate Convocation. There is a fear in university circles that there are moves afoot to abolish Convocation as has occurred in universities in the eastern states. If Convocation does disband AKC fears that the forces that have corporatised the Senate will reign supreme. AKC is not a fan of the current corporatisation that is happening at UWA. UWA is at a watershed.
00:41:25 When AKC was Chancellor, he used to take the Student Guild Committee to dinner before each Senate meeting. One of the students who stood out on the committee was Rosie Dawkins (Guild President in 1998). He was disappointed that sometimes the Guild elections degenerated into lies and dirty tactics.
00:42:38 It was assumed that any member of the Senate is there to promote the university and not their own agenda. When AKC was first elected to the Senate he sat and absorbed what was going on and said nothing so that he did not make a fool of himself. The first day that Jack Krasnostein he asked whether the insurance policy would cover the theft of a valuable statue that was displayed in Winthrop Hall. The Sir Jacob Epstein bust of a girl has since been moved! In 1986, AKC delivered some medical lectures in Karratha. Visiting Cossack on a free afternoon, he discovered the bust of Professor A D Ross (the inaugural Professor of Physics) in a second hand shop. UWA bought it and it now stands in the foyer of the Physics building.
00:47:05 Even though, AKC was the first physician that was made Chancellor, notable physicians who served on the Senate included Leslie Le Souef , Bruce Hunt and Hector Stewart . These men were influential men who were favoured by the Government. It was considered that the Chancellor needed a legal mind. AKC believes it was a quirk of fate that led him to become elected as Chancellor. It is not considered to be a pre-requisite for the Chancellor to serve time on the Senate.
00:50:11 Notable women who served on the Senate include Janet Holmes a Court (1984-1994); Barbara Hamilton; Dorothy Ransom and Jean Rogerson (who became substantial donors to the university). Philippa Maddern was a strong presence on the Senate as was Cheryl Praeger, the mathematician. Margaret Seares was a very influential member of the Senate and served on the Executive. Up until 1998, the Chancellor would have had a much more intimate and influential governance of the university. When AKC became Chancellor he was not invited to meetings of the Executive. It was the Executive who formulated the policy. Another change was that for 6 years, AKC chaired the appointments committee to Professorial posts but when Derek Schreuder arrived, he took over that role. The role of the Chancellor has gradually become eroded so that the role is now more like a figure head.

Interview 2
00:00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00:00:37 AKC had served as Pro Chancellor for 2-3 years (1995-1998). He had had experience on various committees and had chaired the Appointments Committee for 4-5 years. Ken Michael was being groomed as the next Chancellor but AKC felt that he should throw his hat into the ring. Some people on the Senate were opposed to him becoming Chancellor. AKC gave an excellent and well received farewell speech for David Blenkinsop, who was retiring as Director of the Festival of Perth and this may have helped his cause. The election went well and AKC became Chancellor. The night he was elected Chancellor he was telephoned to come and fix a banging gate on the southern campus. The following morning he was photographed by the West Australian in a pose that reminded him of an academic grocer. In the West interview, he stated that he wanted to strengthen ties with Indonesia. As physician to the King of Bali, he was visiting the universities. He wanted to encourage a partnership between the two countries and assist them to develop.
00:06:16 The first thing he did when had settled into the role was to visit all the Faculties and Deans. The Chancellor was more of a titular role. He did not attend Executive meetings. Colin Campbell-Fraser, the Press Officer, also attended the Executive meetings. He was invaluable for his knowledge of the media and the wider world. The Chancellor greeted individual students at the graduation ceremonies and he considered this an important role. Mel (Melville) Sargent used to introduce the students to the Chancellor in his plummy voice. Many universities in Australia no longer have individuals greeted but are conferred with their degrees as a sort of ‘job lot’.
00:12:23 At the time, there were problems settling the dispute over the Shenton Park bushland. AKC met the Aboriginal community on site but the matter was unresolved. Another troublesome period was during the Rindos affair . AKC and Alan Robson had to explain the situation in the West Australian Parliament. It was a difficult time. Another difficult time concerned one of AKC’s friends in another Faculty which put him in an awkward position. Lynne Smith was a marvellous PA. AKC attended the Hackett Foundation meetings and did a lot of public speaking on behalf of the University.
00:16:08 The Queen visited to open the Centre for Experimental Medicine at WA. During his Chancellorship the new University Club was being built by the architect Geoff Warn . AKC considers the new club to be a vast improvement and wrote an article on the subject in Uniview. The building has attempted to blend in with the campus. The tiles were very expensive and caused some controversy. Harold Clough was very supportive of the project and of the university in general.
00:20:31 Most UWA graduates are proud of their alma mater and value the quality of the teaching and the undergraduate experience. Dr Harold Schenberg said on many occasions that UWA had changed his life. Peter Leunig and the Office of Development came into being to assist people like Dr Schenberg to leave money to UWA as a legacy. They brought in lots of money and even travelled overseas to talk to ex graduates. This has led to an almost commercialisation of the university with a vast infrastructure of people doing what they can to raise money. Many years before, the Raine bequest had also brought money to UWA and in recent years the university has benefited from the Andrew (“Twiggy”) Forrest Legacy.
00:25:44 The Director of Finance (then Gaye McMath) manages these monies via the university share portfolio. UWA is no longer a wealthy university as it was at the time of the Hackett Bequest due to competition from the other universities. The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery was the gift of Sir Lawrence just before he was declared bankrupt. Alan Robson had his own fund to which he had access. This fund provided the shortfall of $13,000 which enable the School of Music to buy a particular instrument. This would not happen today.
00:29:50 Towards the end of AKC’s time as Chancellor he and the Hon Peter Jones AM raised $3 million to establish a Chair in Diabetes at UWA. AKC is proud that the Diabetes Research Foundation has founded many scholarships. Money was also raised for the professorial walk behind the Medical Library. Sculptors Joan and Charles Smith were commissioned to create 12 bas-reliefs of the founding professors of the Medical Faculty (founded in 1956). The children of some of the founding professors including Eric Saint, Ralph ten Seldam and Neville Stanley were happy to donate money towards the project and the entire medical profession also gave generously. During the time that AKC was Chancellor, he was the Director of Postgraduate Medical Education at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. He developed the lecture theatre in memory of Mary Lockett, the first woman Professor (Pharmacology) at UWA.
00:33:25 The Medical School at UWA opened in 1956 after a very successful fund raising drive across the community. The twelve professors were recruited and the Medical School was based at Royal Perth Hospital (“RPH”). There were only about 20 students in the early days and some of them had returned from studying in Adelaide to finish their degrees in Perth. In 1963, the old Perth Chest Hospital was enlarged and renamed Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (“SCGH”). Richard Joske transferred from RPH to head up SCGH. Eric Saint was the inaugural professor and Joske followed him. Rivalry developed between the two hospitals. On Wednesday lunchtime, the medical students were addressed by a person from outside the Medical School. SCGH has become the favoured site and RPH has been denigrated. AKC spent 35 years at RPH and believes it to be an essential hospital serving the inner city. AKC believes that the UWA Medical School has missed opportunities. In about 2006 it was offered the chance to convert to a 4 year medical course. They didn’t at that time but has since had to do this as it was the popular model throughout Australia (based on the Harvard system) and was taken up by the Medical School at Notre Dame. If Curtin also start a medical school, it will be difficult to find enough people qualified to teach the students and places for their practical. Nobel Laureate, Dr Barry Marshall has been the cherry on the cake for the UWA Medical School.
00:40:11 The UWA Medical School is set apart from the rest of the campus. The students are fully occupied with their studies and their way of learning is different to the rest of the campus. If the students have no exposure to other disciplines outside of medicine during their undergraduate years they rarely pick that up when they have graduated. Teaching is very different now and AKC feels that there should be more face to face teaching and less online studying. This is an area where UWA needs to lift its game. Research has been privileged over teaching. A good teacher is not always a good researcher and vice versa.
00:43:20 In the days of Hackett and his successors the Chancellorship had a commanding role. This is no longer the case. Universities became more of a business and the Chancellor did not have the skills. The Vice-Chancellor no longer attends meetings of the Professorial Board so the link with the Academic staff is not as strong as it used to be.
00:46:02 Mary Lockett was the first female Professor at UWA. Now there are many female Professors in many fields. Women administer the Lawrence Wilson Gallery. John Birman the director of the Festival of Perth began University Extension. Maureen Smith carried it on and developed the University of the Third Age. At the time, the university had an FM radio station in a wooden structure near the Lawrence Wilson gallery. It was a sad loss the day that costs forced the radio station to close as it was an importance presence on campus and a great outreach to the community.
00:49:19 Through the time that AKC was Chair of Finance and after, the future and survival of UWA Press was under discussion. Some in the Vice-Chancellery felt that it was an unjustified expense. Fremantle Press was developing and it was felt there was no need for a UWA Press. However, Professor Geoffrey Shellam fought hard against it closure. AKC supported him but it was tough going. The Press was founded by Philip Parsons, who taught in the English Department of the University of Western Australia in the 1950s and his wife, Katharine Brisbane. The current editor, Terri-ann White has to make some tough editorial decisions to keep the press viable.

Interview 3
00:00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis.
00:00:40 AKC’s years on the Senate and as Chancellor have given him a renewed pride in the university. He believes his effect has been transient but he tried to build relationships on the Student Guild. He remains friends with many on the Senate and with various people on campus and still meets people for coffee a couple of times a week. The rise of four other universities has given UWA competition which prior to about 1974 it had never had to contend with. The university is a microcosm of life and there are many seething petty rivalries but also great stimulus and esprit de corps.
00:05:27 AKC wanted to repay the university in some concrete way. In August 2014, he met with the Office of Development and expressed the wish to fund a Chair in Translational Science. The office ran with the idea but did not ask for AKC’s assistance with it. Instead, he decided to work with the School of Music. Had been Chair of the Friends of Music for 5 years and knew the staff in the School of Music. David Tunley had mentioned the fact that the school used to have a visiting artist which enriched the staff and students. AKC discussed this with the Vice-Chancellor who gave him permission to personally fund raise. Later he learnt that the School of Music was planning to have a composer in residence for a year so he dropped the concept.
00:10:54 Taking to Professor Paul Wright (violin) and Dr Ashley Smith (clarinet) and Ian Gillings (piano) he decided to put on a Soiree that married the concepts of poetry, music and philosophy. Paul Wright was enthusiastic and the production included a metaphysical poem by Thomas Trahere and music by Gerald Finzi. There was one performance in the Callaway Theatre and it was packed out. He was greatly assisted in organising this Soiree by Pip White at the School of Music.
00:13:11 During this time, AKC began to realise how important St George’s College was to the promotion of music. They are one of the few places in Australia that has a Fazioli piano. Their students are committed to music and they have a programme of visiting artists for one on one and master classes and put on about 20 concerts each year. AKC feels that the college has the capacity to be a unique institution in Australia. They need to have a strong partnership with the School of Music at UWA. Inter-disciplinary partnerships across the campus should also be fostered in the Humanities. Music is very low on the list of priorities as people perceive that medicine, engineering and business are more important disciplines.
00:15:56 AKC is aware that the administrators at UWA have a difficult task coping with inconsistent government policy regarding funding and other matters. There needs to be a steady hand on the tiller. AKC has a great admiration for academics as long as they devote time to teaching. The enthusiasm of people like Professor Lyn Beazley, Professor Fiona Stanley and Winthrop Professor David Blair is inspiring.




Cohen, Alexander , “Alexander Cohen interview, 21 February 2016, 23 February 2016 and 25 February 2016,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,